Milgram versus Burger: Why are People Still Willing to Inflict Pain?

30 Dec

Adam Cohen wrote an interesting opinion piece in today's New York Times about Professor Jerry Burger's recent pain infliction research.  Cohen asks — why, forty years after Stanley Milgram's  "blind obedience" experiment — are ordinary people still willing to inflict extraordinary pain on innocent strangers if an authority figure tells them to do so? The Milgram experiment's goal was to test man's willingness to do evil. Why for example, were the Nazis able to persuade ordinary Germans to execute mass genocide?

Cohen goes on to say that despite the fact that the world has changed significantly since 1963,  Professor Burger's results were nearly identical to Milgram's. Average Joe is just as willing to blindly follow orders to inflict pain today as he was four decades ago.  

Why? Professor Burger "believes that the mindset of the individual participant — including cultural influences  – is less important than the situational features" — i.e., the authority figure taking responsibility for the decision to give the shock and then increase the voltage.

Cohen raises an important issue — if this is how most people will behave, how do we prevent  more Holocausts, Abu Ghraibs and other examples of cruelty?  Burger believes that by teaching people about these experiments, they'll be better equipped to stop those tendencies within themselves and others. Unfortunately, I doubt that.

Read the full story here.

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